6When [the apostles] had come together, they asked [Jesus], “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” 7He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. 8But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” 9When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight. 10While he was going and they were gazing up toward heaven, suddenly two men in white robes stood by them. 11They said, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up toward heaven? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in the same way as you saw him go into heaven.”
12Then they returned to Jerusalem from the mount called Olivet, which is near Jerusalem, a sabbath day’s journey away. 13When they had entered the city, they went to the room upstairs where they were staying, Peter, and John, and James, and Andrew, Philip and Thomas, Bartholomew and Matthew, James son of Alphaeus, and Simon the Zealot, and Judas son of James. 14All these were constantly devoting themselves to prayer, together with certain women, including Mary the mother of Jesus, as well as his brothers. (NRSV)
|My Aching Soul by Rich. Creative commons image on flickr|
The Roman Catholic Diocese of Pittsburgh recently announced a sweeping plan of restructuring that will create 49 parish “groupings,” and necessitate the closure of dozens of buildings throughout the Pittsburgh Area.
In a section of the Allegheny Valley stretching from Springdale to Cabot, nine parishes will be consolidated into three.
The Diocese is calling their effort On Mission for the Church Alive, but one could easily call it “In Mourning for the Church Dying…”
I don’t think you can truly understand the pain of a church closure until you go through it. Generations of families will have been baptized, confirmed, married, buried from that building. Christians having given selflessly of time and talent to support the ministry. The loss to that community of their presence as an assembled body. The building left to rot away abandoned or be bulldozed to make way for a Starbucks.
This highlights what is one of the greatest challenges of being a Christian: the problem of dashed expectations.
Jesus’ disciples are once again facing this situation in today’s first reading. Forty days ago, they’d endured the spiritual and emotional trauma of Jesus’ crucifixion—and the whirlwind drama of his resurrection. Their hopes that had been dashed by his death have now been revived and intensified by his being raised. Since the religious leaders and Roman authorities failed in their attempt to get rid of Jesus for good, the disciples now have their sights set on Israel’s highest hope—that Jesus conquer the Romans, reclaim the Temple, and take the Davidic throne as ruler of a reunified Israel.
But then, Jesus tells them “that’s not your business to know…” Then, Jesus is carried off into heaven by a cloud.
Before he goes, he tells them, “you will be my witnesses in Judea, Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” I can’t imagine they took this as good news. Not only have their highest hopes been dashed, they are sent on a mission that is as daunting as it is frightening. Jesus will not be there in body as he had been.
This is almost like Good Friday all over again. And—chances are, you know how they feel.
As a Christian, in what ways have your expectations been dashed?
Which of your most fervent prayers have not been answered?
Which of your dreams have turned into nightmares?
Is being a Christian everything it’s cracked up to be?
Has your belonging to this church been a disappointment?
Have you come hungry and left empty?
Have you gotten closer to Jesus—or more confused and discouraged?
We work so hard at everything we do to meet people’s needs and share Jesus’ love—so why all the empty pews? Why have people stopped coming?
Christians make two big mistakes when their expectations are dashed. The first—is they pretend it’s not happening. They put on a happy face and try and shove their feelings down inside of them. It’s the classic Pollyanna mindset optimism that ignores reality. But you can’t do that forever—which leads to the second mistake Christians make: they give up. When there’s questions without answers; disappointments without resolutions; they’re done. It’s as if it’s a shameful thing to be disappointed in God—and that God will be angry with you!
But it’s not a sin to be disappointed with God. It’s what you do with the disappointment that counts.
So what if you and I spoke more opening about our dashed expectations—because this is something we all have in common! What if we thought of our church as a spiritual support group—and talk more openly about our struggles and frustrations? As we look to the future of this congregation, can we grieve for the people we’ve lost and the changes to our world that have let us all to the situation we’re in? Can we be courageous enough to name the ways this church (which isn’t perfect) has disappointed us?
This is terribly hard to do—but when the apostles are standing there stunned following the ascension of Jesus, two angels come to comfort them with God’s promises. Later, they come together with the female disciples and Jesus’ own family to pray. What happens is that this ending and this disappointment gives way to a new beginning—and ultimately, the birth of the Church—and the new embodiment of the presence of Christ in people and in bread and wine. Those apostles are going to take the presence of Christ to the ends of the earth, just as Jesus promised.
Jesus brings a transformative grace into your dashed expectations. He is always making things new. Resurrection is our full-time job! So as we identify our disappointments, grieve our losses, confront our failures, we do so trusting that these will not define who we are or the future God has in store.
Jesus will still be alive, no matter what happens. His church will always exist, even if all the church buildings in this town close their doors. In Christ, every ending is a new beginning.